Tyler Cowen’s “State Capacity Libertarianism”

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Tyler Cowen recently posted an argument on his web page, Marginal Revolution, called, “What Libertarianism Has Become and Will Become: State Capacity Libertarianism.”

Terrible name, I thought. But I kept reading.

Cowen, who is professor of economics at George Mason University and director of its Mercatus Center, is probably the most prominent mainstream libertarian intellectual today. (In essence, “mainstream” means that nonlibertarians will listen to him.) His webpage shows a mind ranging from the history of the Marshall Plan to the economics of art to how globalization affects the way the world eats.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems.

He begins his piece as follows:

“Having tracked the libertarian ‘movement’ for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow. One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt-right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.”

The problem, he says, is that plumb-line libertarianism doesn’t address some 21st-century problems, starting with the effects of carbon combustion on the Earth’s climate. Smart libertarians and classical liberals, he says (with a nod to Adam Smith), “have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.”

(Entirely non-sticky: correct.)

We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems from global warming and traffic congestion. “State Capacity Libertarians,” Cowen writes, “are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.”

That’s right. We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone. One is the creation of public-health institutions that can protect the public from such scourges as smallpox, polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola. Another is to make markets work better by requiring the disclosure of information such as the contents of processed food or the legal properties of stocks and bonds.

“Plumb-line” libertarians — the purists — will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so. In the world of opinion journalism Cowen’s opened door was wrenched off its hinges by Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen in a piece entitled, “Libertarianism Is Losing Its Grip on Conservative Thought. Good.”

To Olsen, libertarians are zealots who declare “government always bad, private action always good.” And there are people like that. Olsen argues that this means libertarians “are congenitally unable to present plausible answers to challenges that people want addressed.” As an example, he cites the economic gap in Britain between the prosperous South and depressed North, an ailment to which the U.K.’s prime minister, the “one-nation conservative” Boris Johnson, now promises to minister. Olsen also cites the push by Sen. Mario Rubio (R-FL), for federal intervention to shore up “hollowed-out” manufacturing industries. Olsen applauds these proposals. He favors a politics in which “democratic governments can legitimately define a problem and then use tax, spending and regulatory policy to try to accomplish a specific, publicly defined goal.”

The purists will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so.

Olsen goes on to argue that too many Republicans in Congress have been cowed by libertarians with their “government bad, private action good” mantra, so that the Republicans offer no solutions to such problems as health insurance coverage, climate change and “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor.” Olsen concludes, “Cowen’s essay is thus aptly timed, bringing a ray of sunshine into a long-darkened movement . . . The hard core will try to keep the rest of us in the shadows, but the days will lengthen as more and more conservatives break free from their frozen slumber.”

Shadows and dark forces aside, there is some truth in what Olsen says. Several of the Democratic presidential wannabees are pushing for the entire U.S. health insurance industry to be scrapped and replaced by federal officials. The Republicans oppose this, of course, but mainly by dragging their feet, which is not a strategy that ultimately wins. For years now, the Republicans in Congress have promised to repeal Obamacare, but when they had the votes to do it, they didn’t. They had nothing politically acceptable to replace it with. Now they are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

So Olsen has a point. If you are too doctrinaire you remove yourself from the discussion and you get nothing. But in defining his position, Olsen opens the door to state action much too wide. He wants government to take up “the challenges that people want addressed.” And that could be anything.

Libertarians seek to limit state action. Cowen is arguing, as am I, not to imagine limits too strict. To defend against an imminent threat to the health and safety of the people, state power may be used against foreign army or an infectious microbe, or to defend against a long-term threat like a warming planet. But the problem Olsen defines as “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor” is not such an imminent threat. Nor is the relative decline of manufacturing. These are social trends, not imminent dangers. The percentage of Americans employed in manufacturing has been declining since 1953 — and with the advance of robotics, employment in that sector, if not production, will continue to decline. Get used to it.

Now Republicans are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

To a libertarian, the market value of different kinds of labor is a background fact that you take into account in your private decisions. If you grow up in a low-wage area with few opportunities, you can move away. You can stay and start a company and thereby provide work. If you can’t make it in manufacturing, you can do something else. Go into the service industry. Become a university professor. Sell hot dogs. Whatever. To a libertarian, these are not government problems.

In today’s America, they are. Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless. Government is enlisted to eradicate poverty, inequality, racism, sexism and homophobia. Reacting to the crisis of plastic bits in the Pacific Ocean, the city where I live has banned plastic straws, and to address the obesity crisis (supposedly) it taxes the sugar content of canned and bottled drinks.

No libertarian can accept Olsen’s idea of a government unleashed in this way. You can, however, consider Olsen’s criticism. Some of the time, out of political necessity, it makes sense to accept compromise solutions. Charter schools are better than uniform public schools. A mandate to buy private health insurance is better than “Medicare for All.” A carbon tax is better than green socialism. As George Orwell once wrote, the sure sign of a zealot is an argument that half a loaf is the same as no bread.

Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless.

Consider some of the replies to Cowen from libertarians.

Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute was against him. “There is no political will or constituency for skillful technocratic state management of society . . . There is no third way between state and market.” Come on, Deist, don’t try to win by asserting theoretical categories. A society can have some state and some market — which is what we do have, here and in almost every jurisdiction on the planet, in various proportions. That’s what we’re talking about, and you know it. “Western states won't give up their sclerotic regulatory, tax, central banking, and entitlement systems no matter how many flying cars or hyperloops we want.” Yep, they probably won’t, just as Cowen says. “Climate change is not a problem or issue for anyone to solve.” Well, maybe not for anyone to solve, but perhaps for all of humanity to ameliorate — and intelligent amelioration might be good enough. “The environmental movement will quash nuclear (especially after Fukushima).” Maybe, but arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Deist also has his definition. “Libertarianism simply means ‘private.’ It is a non-state approach to organizing human society. It is not narrow or confining; in fact everything Cowen desires in an improved society can be advanced through private mechanisms.” Everything, eh? This reminds me of when I was a teenager and I wrote to Nathaniel Branden asking him how we would build highways without eminent domain. He replied that in a free society this would not be a problem, “nor has it ever been.”

Bryan Caplan offers a piece titled, “Worst Advice to Libertarians Ever?” He quotes Cowen’s lines, “We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.” Okay; Cowen didn’t say he liked growing government, but that he was willing to accept much of it. I don’t think this means, as responder Gabriel M. says, that Cowen “wants the next generation of libertarians to be social democrats.”

Arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Cowen replies to Caplan: “Bryan’s extreme rhetoric is a sign my points have hit home. I regularly debate these topics with him over lunch, I think Bryan is tired of being beat up upon in person. Note that in my essay I mention pandemics, global warming, and intellectual property as problem areas. There are plenty of facts on each topic. Bryan doesn’t mention one of these in response, instead shifting ground to the war on terror and resource pessimism, which he then punctures.”

When you argue against someone, rhetorical fairness requires that you take on their strongest points, not just their weakest ones.

At the Hoover Institution, economist David Henderson argues that “libertarianism, properly conceived, can handle almost all the modern problems that Cowen throws at it, whereas state capacity is fraught with danger.” Henderson argues that hardcore libertarians are right about recreational drugs, which maybe they are (meth, too?), and about the public schools. (Totally privatized schooling in one jump, or vouchers, or charters first?) He allows that on global warming, “if it is indeed a problem,” Cowen makes a good point. Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?) Henderson is right that there is some danger in Cowen’s position, but he also makes a crucial concession about global warming.

Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, argues that Cowen’s “spirit is on target” but that his “specifics are fundamentally mistaken.” He goes on to concede, however, that Cowen is mostly right about the movement not commanding new adherents. And concerning the necessity of compromise, Gillespie writes that a better, non plumb-line definition of libertarianism is “an outlook that privileges things such as autonomy, open-mindedness, pluralism, tolerance, innovation, and voluntary cooperation over forced participation in as many parts of life as possible." I like that definition a lot, and I think Cowen would like it. It seems to me that Gillespie accepts much of what Cowen says.

Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?)

Dan Hugger of the Acton Institute argues that Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism” “is actually a case for a politically pragmatic libertarianism tailor-made to a hostile audience.” Okay.

Several commenters describe Cowen’s position as left-liberal or social democrat — in other words, “liberaltarian.” These are sort-of libertarians who want to ally with Left in the hope of converting them. Read some of the comments from leftists on Olsen’s piece in the Washington Post.

  • “Libertarians are cruel,” writes Jetmechanic1. “Probably more so than republicans. They are overwhelmingly people who have money and status and don’t answer to anyone.”
  • “Libertarianism will never go away because Conservatives will always need a rationalization for ripping people off,” writes Blochead1.
  • “These people will eat you if they make a dime from it,” writes CountryMouse2.
  • “I’ve yet to hear of even ONE Libertarian of any stripe refusing to accept their Social Security checks,” writes CubbyMichael. (Isabel Paterson was one.)
  • From Domiba: “Tell a so-called libertarian to pave his own road.”
  • Then there is Kumit, who asserts that conservatism and libertarianism both are “just dog-whistle fascism.” (The “dog whistle” trope is a way of dismissing your opponents’ arguments without having to consider them.)

We are not allies of the Left. They don’t want anything to do with us. Cowen’s version of a compromised libertarianism is not “liberaltarianism” in any case.

Cowen’s positions are not plumb-line, but they are broadly libertarian. To me, the central statement of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you. This doesn’t mean that you don’t love your family or your country or the green Earth, or that you accept no obligations to them. It means that you decide which ones to accept, and that others respect your decision. You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them. “Society” does not owe you food, shelter, housing, medical care and a free bus pass.

Our opponents accuse us of saying, “You are on your own,” as if we were cutting people off from humanity. And I think: No way. You are free to make all kinds of affiliations, and most people do. But you decide — what you believe, whom you love, whom you live with, where you live, what work you do and how you spend your money.

You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them.

In many of these things, we are essentially a libertarian society right now. Our politics is not libertarian, but even in our economic life, we are broadly more libertarian than not.

The case for liberty is also about the quality of the society. A society of private decisions is fluid. Freewheeling. Organic. Its direction is set by the sum of people’s choices, of which only a small part is how they vote. More important is what they do. It is the same in industry. The future of the medical industry, for example, requires that innovators constantly develop new drugs, new devices, new treatments and new ideas. A single payer will tend to roll a moldy carpet over all that. Regarding research and development spending, Terence Kealey wrote in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (1996), “Nationalization always lowers budgets, whatever the enterprise.” (p. 247). Especially when there is no competition — and that is what “single payer” means — government services tend to be not too good.

The political world of 2020 doesn’t want to hear this. The candidates vie with one another to offer free stuff and secular salvation. One is an avowed socialist, and none is a libertarian. Still we have a good case, and we can make it stronger if we are not so dogmatic about it. Life is complicated, and an entire political philosophy built on the nonaggression principle will not work and will not sell. But we can still promote a world of strong (if not absolute) self-ownership, self-reliance and individual rights. We can say what H.L. Mencken said of the freedom of the press, when asked how much of it he was for. His answer was, simply, “As much as people can stand.”




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The Opposite of Libertarianism

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In libertarian circles it is a conventional position that the word that describes our opposite is "statism," adherents of which are "statists." I challenge that assumption.

In the first place, most people are unfamiliar with the term “statism.” Its use merely adds to the aura of weirdness and abnormality surrounding the advocacy of liberty. To the extent that voters don't know the definition of “statism,” any argument relying on it cannot help us win elections.

Second, I am not an etymologist and lack data to prove this, but my gut feeling is that libertarian writers in the 1930s to 1960s felt comfortable using the word “statist” because (Ayn Rand comes to mind) they spoke French and viewed “state” as the English translation of état. In the USA, however, “state” specifically refers to one of the 50 states. The better translation of état is “nation” or “government.” So I propose that “statism” be retired in favor of either "nationalism" or "governmentalism" as the word by which we designate the opposite of libertarianism.

To the extent that voters don't know the definition of “statism,” any argument relying on it cannot help us win elections.

“Nationalism” is particularly attractive because it conjures up connotations of National Socialism as the end point of liberty's opponents. “Governmentalism,” on the other hand, pinpoints the government as our nemesis. Yes, “state” can also mean “government,” but I feel that my proposal would best align our language with that of the people we want to reach.




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Diddling While Rome Burns

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Your humble social media correspondent is troubled. For some time now, discord among warring libertarians has raged on Facebook, my own battlefield of choice. In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

One friend — whom I also know personally — has gone on an unholy tear about the injustices of life as a tenant. “Rent is theft!” his posts repeatedly scream. I’ve always considered him a levelheaded person. I have no idea what’s happened to him. A lot of people are quitting him because he’s gone to a place so dark they don’t want to follow.

In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

I know he leans far left. Like a lot of former statist progressives, he’s outraged about something practically all the time. He sees it as his personal mission to convert as many as possible of his comrades to left-libertarianism. I suppose you could say that he’s the Apostle Paul of that faction. But if all he has to give these hungry souls is more outrage and aggrievement, I think he’s offering pretty thin gruel.

In my previous essay in Liberty I alluded to the compulsion I see in so many people to dress up in fancy and heroic costumes. As this turbulence on Facebook was something I was already facing daily, I had it at least partially in mind. Almost everybody involved is between 19 and 25, looking for a girlfriend (or in some cases, a boyfriend) and hoping to appear edgy and revolutionary. I know I must be getting old, because the whole production is making me tired and cranky.

These people need to take a good, hard look around them. I can’t imagine where they’re getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom. Their mothers might have cared, in a worried, “Do you have a tummyache, dear?” sort of way, and their buds at the dorm probably found it mildly engrossing over pizza and beer. But they’re supposed to be adults now, and they’re merely diddling while Rome burns.

We’ve all got a lot of heavy lifting to do if we are even going to budge this society in a libertarian direction. The blessed time when we might profitably haggle about what type of libertarian society we’re going to have — just exactly, and to a precise ideological point — is one that neither I, nor anyone reading this essay, will ever live to see. It may be as distant in the future as the American Revolution is in the past. In the meantime, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we are standing for what is right and that each of us is doing our personal utmost to work toward that worthy goal. Ordering fries with that is simply not an option.

Where are they getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom?

I’m glad to see so many new converts to the liberty movement, especially among the young, but I fear that few of them will persevere long enough to see their commitment through. I think it’s very likely that they’ll get discouraged by the tough slog, and end up returning to statism — a hefty part of the appeal of which is the promise of an order of fries with that. To switch metaphors yet again, we now find ourselves stuck in Siberia, but hope to row, in our huge fleet of leaky rowboats, clear to Honolulu. As we navigate the stormy waters between us and our destination, will they turn aside and end up shipwrecked on Alcatraz?

We’ll all just have to stay tuned. I know that I’ll continue to follow the soap opera. And I fully intend to persevere on our journey. I don’t needa side of fries — though there are some days when I yearn for an aspirin, the size of a hockey puck.




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Repeal and Replace the Democratic Party

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In my previous essay, I made a suggestion that would once have been unthinkable. I said that the country would be better off if the Democratic Party were bumped down to minor league status and replaced on the top tier by the Libertarian Party.

Since then, I’ve taken an informal poll of the people in my social sphere. Almost unanimously, the Republicans think it’s a fine idea. I doubt that this comes as any bigger surprise to our readers than it has to me. What would have been surprising to Americans just a few short years ago is that even an overwhelming number of the independents I polled also expressed a desire to see this big shift happen. Independents now outnumber those in either “major” party by a significant margin. Almost nobody who isn’t a Democrat can stand the donkey party anymore. That a huge swath of the population at least hates the GOP less than the Democrats became evident this past November.

I was almost tempted to peek out my window at the night sky to see if the planets were in some weird new alignment.

Even some Democrats can’t stand the Democratic Party. As I was writing my notes for this essay, I was talking on the phone with a very liberal friend who lamented his party’s takeover by the blowhards, crybabies, and troublemakers of the social justice warrior set. He actually spoke favorably of a novella by Ayn Rand. I was almost tempted to peek out my window at the night sky to see if the planets were in some weird new alignment. The political planets are realigning, indeed.

My reasons for hoping that a realignment might happen go beyond simply wanting big-league status for the Libertarians. Though I was a Democrat for most of my adult life, I have since moved considerably to the right. Despite the buffooneries of the GOP, it is the “major” party to which I’m ideologically closer. A rivalry between that party and ours would likely do less harm to the country than the current rivalry between it and the Democrats.

A good friend in our local chapter of the gay organization Outright Libertarians appears to see himself as something of an evangelist to the Left. He toils mightily to persuade his fellow progressives to love liberty. I wish him a lot of luck, but for the sake of my mental health, I had to abandon that mission. I’m afraid it’s a lost cause, because most leftists strike me as impervious to reason. When they lose an argument (and against us, this happens constantly), they tend to be as petulant and abusive as three-year-olds being dragged away from the toy aisle at Target.

A very large part of the reason I left the Left was that I felt it had become a fraud.

What would a big-league rivalry between Libertarians and Republicans look like? Quite contrary to my Outright friend, I would hate to see our party become a standard-bearer for the Left. But I think the dynamics of the American political scene would drastically change. Very likely the entire left-right paradigm would be shaken apart. Instead, the conflict would probably be between liberty and authority.

Would a head-to-head match between Libertarians and Republicans improve the GOP, or bring out the worst in it? I don’t claim to know. It might be taken over by the neocons, theocons, and crony capitalists to a far greater degree than it already has been. Or it could possibly be motivated to lay down the weapon of government force and engage us in the arena of ideas. Most likely it would have the former effect on some and the latter on others.

As far as I have traveled from the statist left, I still care about some of the causes it claims to espouse. I’m a woman, a bisexual, and a member of the working class, so I have a stake in several of those groups’ concerns. A very large part of the reason I left the Left was that I felt it had become a fraud. Progressives used to say that the end justified the means — now they very much appear to see the means as an end in themselves.

The Libertarian Party might change the game. If the game were played by our rules, perhaps the American people would finally win.

They push people around, threaten them, deceive them, steal from them, and try to shut them up for the sake of their supposedly holy causes; and they do these things simply because they can. In fact, they give every indication that doing them is far more important than achieving the objectives for whose sake they’re allegedly being done. To much of the Left, making noise and trouble has become a bigger priority than making sense. The only genuine good they ever did was to persuade people that their causes were right and just. Now, however, they’ve given up on making sense, thereby abandoning nearly all attempts at rational persuasion.

And Democrats bring out the worst in Republicans. As the latter become more like the former, they increasingly see their scheming, lying, self-indulgently emoting identity politicking and moral panicking as necessary. These grievous faults — in which so much of the statist impulse is rooted — are rationalized as merely the rules of the game. The Libertarian Party might change the game. We operate by a completely different set of rules, and if the game were played by our rules, perhaps the American people would finally win.

Conservatives talk as if all that’s needed to save the country is a complete repeal of progressivism. Obamacare — the Left’s prized pet, which has morphed into a monster — certainly should be repealed, and with no replacement. But I believe there are certain crucial tasks conservatives simply cannot perform. Every healthy society must have progressives as well as conservatives, just as every functioning vehicle needs both a gas pedal and a brake. Under the proper conditions, those motivated to advocate what once were considered progressive causes might arise in both parties, and many former independents might very well choose to join them.

Instead of being reduced to political footballs, issues could then be debated on their own merits. Reason might take the place of aggression. Even if the lion can’t be persuaded to lie down with the lamb, perhaps it can be kept from killing it.


Editor's Note: The author is interested in hearing readers' comments, after which she will continue this essay in a second part.



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Weaponized Fear

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On the Sunday after the election, during the coffee hour following Mass at my Episcopal church, a parishioner went around the social hall doling out safety pins. Accompanying them were flyers telling us how comforted and loved we were supposed to feel, thanks to kind souls who — well, gave us safety pins and flyers. Just in case any of us somehow missed the point, he’d also tacked the flyers up in the hall, the narthex, and the parish house.

I declined to take one of his special safety pins. And, just because sometimes I’m ornery that way, I asked him exactly what it is we’re supposed to feel safe from. Perhaps appropriate for someone handing out safety pins, once used to fasten cloth diapers, he responded in baby-talk.

For all their supposed kindness, compassion, and moral superiority over the rest of us, the “progressives” of today are among the most hostile and aggressive people I have ever seen.

Though I tried to be polite, I’m fairly sure that my annoyance showed through. I am heartily sick of the crocodile tears of those who refuse to accept the election of Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him, but he won — and I was brought up to believe that regardless of whether they like the outcomes, adults simply accept the results of lawful elections as matters of fact. What I have a hard time accepting is Hillary Clinton’s troopers bringing their petulant “not my president” nonsense into church.

The safety pin missionary smiled his kindly Christian smile. But his eyes glazed and his jaw clenched. He clearly wanted to sock me. I must admit that at that particular moment, I didn’t feel particularly safe. For all their supposed kindness, compassion, and moral superiority over the rest of us, the “progressives” of today are among the most hostile and aggressive people I have ever seen.

It wasn’t enough to foist his magical talismans off on us during coffee hour. In the middle of a meeting of the St. Anne’s Guild — an Episcopal women’s organization — he burst in to pass them around. When they came to me, I dropped them. I confess I can’t be sure it was entirely accidental.

Am I overreacting? Is there anything wrong, at heart, with this ministry of the diaper pin? There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to comfort fearful people. I suppose I’d find these admonitions not to be afraid more comforting — not to mention more convincing — if they weren’t coming from the very people turning a blind eye to mass tantrums that degenerate into riots. In an instant, this crowd can go from speaking pabulum words of peace to screaming through a bullhorn.

Fear is the weapon of tyrants. Statists are, at the very least, tyrants-in-training.

I’d be the last to deny that fear has reached pestilential levels in our society. We see it everywhere, and it motivates more of what we do than most of us would care to admit. When our “fear” button is pressed too often, and too hard, it gets stuck in the “on” position. And an overload of fear — especially during an extended period — goads us into rage. Rage is nothing more or less than weaponized fear.

Fear is the weapon of tyrants. Statists are, at the very least, tyrants-in-training. Donald Trump has poured his share of gasoline on the fire. Not so much in what he’s said, himself, but in the hordes of supporters who, throughout his campaign, he encouraged to be angry and little else. They were angry because they were afraid, and because they were so angry they’ve made many other people afraid.

This vicious cycle won’t be stopped by people who condemn fearmongering only in those with whom they disagree, while condoning it in their political allies. I believe that Trump supporters would have been equally quick to kick, scream, and turn blue if their candidate had lost the election. Those who behave that way are certainly very likely to be afraid. But they don’t hesitate to throw their rivals into the most ungodly terror they are capable of inspiring.

The safety-pin crusade was, in itself, an act of aggression. That it masqueraded as an attempt to be comforting fooled nobody who wasn’t willing to be fooled. It was infantile, as acts of aggression usually are. If protestors against our constitutionally stipulated political process continue to behave like irrational children, they will destroy this country. And any church that doesn’t stop this nonsense from happening in what its parishioners trust to be sacred space will eventually find its entire body of believers in diapers, and nothing in the collection plate but safety pins.




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A Normal Country in a Normal Time Ever Again?

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The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989–1991 closed an important chapter not only in Russian history, but in our own as well.

For 50 years after Pearl Harbor, the United States, a nation enjoined to isolation by its founders, had labored to save Western civilization, and indeed the world, from Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. It had won through against both enemies, though at considerable cost to itself.

The war of 1941–1945 against Nazi Germany and militarist Japan cost the lives of 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. We must, of course, never forget the sacrifice those men made for victory. Lost lives aside, however, the war actually benefited America tremendously. We emerged from it as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb. Our economy in 1945 accounted for almost 50% of the world’s total output; we possessed a wealth of modern plant and equipment, and we were far ahead of the rest of the world in most if not all cutting-edge technologies. Our infrastructure was the most modern and efficient in the world, and there was more (such as the national highway system) to come. Our debt was high, but we owed most of it to ourselves, and were quite capable of paying it off. The terrible days of the Great Depression were over, seemingly for good; the soup kitchens and shantytowns of the 1930s were gone, while an expanding middle class that for the first time included blue-collar workers was enjoying a prosperity greater than any other nation had known.

If culturally the America of 1945 was in no way comparable to Periclean Athens or Augustan Rome, there was nevertheless a certain vitality evident in American arts and letters. Modernism was in its heyday, and its capital was no longer Paris but New York. The undifferentiated mass barbarism of the postmodernist present was, in the period 1945–1965, almost inconceivable.

We emerged from World War II as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb.

The costs of the Cold War against Soviet Communism were both more subtle and more profound than those incurred in World War II, although it was not until the 1960s that these costs began to be felt. Dallas and its legacies — the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and his war in Vietnam — initiated a period of decline in American power, prestige, and prosperity. The fall of Saigon in 1975 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (the latter, as it turned out, the last in a series of Communist takeovers in what was then known as the Third World) seemed to mark a turn in the historical tide. Not that communism, as a doctrine and system of government, could stand comparison to Western values; it most assuredly could not. But the West, and particularly the United States, appeared to be in terminal decline. By the late 1970s a failure of will, of morale, was palpably in the air. Vietnam looked increasingly like an American version of the expedition to Syracuse — that unnecessary and, ultimately, disastrous campaign undertaken by ancient Athens, and memorably recorded in the pages of Thucydides.

Yet Athens, despite its defeat at Syracuse, and despite waging war simultaneously against Sparta and the vast Persian Empire, rallied and regained the upper hand in the Peloponnesian War. It was only later that war à outrance and treason within brought about Athens’ final defeat and the end of its primacy in the ancient world.

America in the 1980s rallied in a similar fashion, emerging from the nadir of defeat in Vietnam to challenge Soviet imperialism once more, and then, by a policy of peace through strength, giving the sclerotic Soviet system a final push that sent it to its well-deserved place on the trash heap of history. With this the 50-year struggle against totalitarianism was over, and freedom had triumphed. Or had it? At just this moment, in 1990, Jeane Kirkpatrick, formerly Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador and a prominent neoconservative, published an article in the National Interest. It was titled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time,” and it put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve “full-spectrum dominance,” i.e., world domination.

Kirkpatrick, a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment, began her essay by stating that a good society is not defined by its foreign policy but rather by the “existence of democracy, opportunity, fairness; by the relations among its citizens, the kind of character nurtured, and the quality of life lived.”

Kirkpatrick put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve world domination.

She went on to write that “Foreign policy becomes a major aspect of a society only [emphasis added] if its government is expansionist, imperial, aggressive, or when it is threatened by aggression.” The end of the Cold War, she averred, “frees time, attention, and resources for American needs.”

Kirkpatrick’s vision was right for America in 1990, and it remains so now. But that vision, alas, has never been fulfilled.

In her essay Kirkpatrick warned that foreign policy elites — the denizens of government bureaucracies, universities, and thinktanks — had become altogether too influential and powerful during the 50 years’ emergency, and that their interests were by no means aligned with those of the citizenry as a whole. She made two other very important points: that restraint on the international stage is not the same thing as isolationism, and that popular control of foreign policy is vitally necessary to prevent elite, minority opinion from determining the perceived national interest. With respect to the latter point Kirkpatrick neither said nor implied that the American people should make policy directly. She acknowledged — correctly — that professional diplomats and other experts are required for the proper execution of national policy. But policy in the broad sense must reflect the views of the people and must be circumscribed by the amount of blood and treasure the people are willing to sacrifice for any particular foreign policy objective.

Her concept of a polity in which the citizenry sets or at least endorses the goals of foreign policy admittedly has its troubling aspects. For one thing, it is far from certain that the citizenry as a whole — the masses, to be blunt — will choose to adopt wise policies. In Athens the expedition against Syracuse was enthusiastically endorsed by the Assembly, and history is replete with further examples of the popular will leading to disaster. Flowing from this is a second problem: the ability of clever demagogues or cabals to sway or bypass popular opinion in favor of policies that are inimical to the general interest, and that often turn out to be disastrous. Post-World War II American history provides numerous examples of this: the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of a democratic government in Iran at the behest of British and American oil interests, with consequences that we are still trying to deal with today; the Bay of Pigs (1961), which set in motion a chain of events that nearly led to nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, both of which received initial popular support as a result of outright deception perpetrated by a few powerful men with an agenda. (The phony Tonkin Gulf incident opened the way to escalation in Vietnam, while the falsehoods about WMD, anthrax, and Saddam Hussein’s connection to 9/11 made possible George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.)

Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”

Nevertheless, the alternative to popular control over foreign policy is the placing of the nation’s destiny in the hands of an elite that, by its very nature, typically has little understanding of the needs and desires of the people as a whole. Such elites are, unfortunately, quite prone to committing disastrous errors of judgment — witness the events mentioned above. Plato’s guardians are rarely found in the flesh. Gibbon pointed to the Five Good Emperors who reigned over Rome in the period 96–180 CE, which the historian characterized as the happiest and most prosperous time in human history. But these men were almost the exceptions that prove the rule. British policy in the 19th century was guided by statesmen such as Palmerston and Salisbury — men who understood both Britain’s interests and the limits of its power. For a brief period of ten years, between the fall of France in 1940 and the decision to march to the Yalu in Korea in 1950, American foreign policy received, in general, wise elite guidance. These were critical years, and we should be thankful that men such as George Marshall and Dean Acheson were in power at that time. But except for that brief span, elite leadership of American foreign policy has entailed economic and blood costs far in excess of those we actually needed to pay. Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”

The Deep State, quite real though unacknowledged by most academic historians and the mainstream media, amounts to a partnership between nonstate actors and various groups inside government, working together to shape and carry out policies that are generally contrary to the popular will, and often to the national interest as well. The Deep State is not a second, shadow government or conspiracy central, with permanent members who manipulate puppets in the White House and the halls of Congress. Rather, it consists of shifting or ad hoc alliances between government insiders and groups of powerful people or institutions outside of government. The former are sometimes elected officials, sometimes holders of key posts in the bureaucracy or the military. Such alliances are typically formed in the name of “national security” but often benefit only the ideological, institutional, or pecuniary interests of Deep State actors.

Some of the nonstate actors are “respectable” (the big New York banks, the oil majors, defense contractors), while others are by no means so (the Mafia, international drug traffickers). But whether they can be mentioned in polite company or not, their influence has often been felt in the councils of government, and particularly with respect to American foreign policy. For example, the swift transformation of the CIA, originally conceived as an intelligence-gathering agency, into a covert operations juggernaut was the work of men drawn mainly from Wall Street law firms and investment banks. These men went on to cooperate with the Mafia in places such as Cuba, extending an overworld-underworld partnership that went back to World War II.

Malign influences of this sort had been present since at least the end of the Civil War, but in earlier times had been limited to buying votes in Congress or persuading the executive to dispatch the Marines to establish order and collect debts in Latin American banana republics. The great expansion of government in World War II, and especially during the Cold War, allowed the Deep State to metastasize. The collapse of the European colonial empires and the simultaneous ascension of America to superpower status meant that after 1945 the American Deep State could extend its tentacles globally.

The turning point was probably the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. These institutions, and particularly the first two, were (and to an extent still are) beyond the effective control of either the Congress or the president of the moment. And they are not alone. The various intelligence services and the military, or parts thereof, often pursue agendas that are at variance with official policy as set out by the president. They sometimes partner with each other, or with powerful institutions and people outside of government, to achieve mutually desired objectives. President Eisenhower, with his immense personal popularity and prestige, was able to hold the line to the extent of keeping us out of another shooting war, though he nevertheless felt compelled to warn the people, in his farewell address, of the growing power and influence of the Deep State, which he termed the Military-Industrial Complex.

The “deep events” of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — Dallas, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra — cannot be understood without reference to the Deep State. The role of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) in Iran-Contra is a good example of the Deep State in action. I mention BCCI specifically because its peculiar history has been revealed in several well-researched books and in investigations by the Congress. But the role of BCCI in Iran-Contra (and much else besides) is just one of the many strange manifestations of the Deep State in our history. The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.

The loss of liberty that resulted from the emergence and growth of the Deep State was real and perhaps irreversible. By the 1960s, the machinery of domestic surveillance, created in embryo by J. Edgar Hoover even before World War II, included spying on the populace by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the military. Domestic spying was reined in somewhat during the 1970s, only to be ramped up again under Reagan in the 1980s. These abuses were part of the price paid for victory in the Cold War. Whether such abuses were inevitable under Cold War conditions is debatable; I personally would characterize them as the effluvia typical of a bloated imperium.

The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.

Be that as it may, the Cold War did end in a real victory, and with victory came the hope that the worrisome trends (“worrisome” is doubtless too mild a word) that the struggle against totalitarianism had initiated or exacerbated could be reversed.

It was therefore highly encouraging when in 1990 Kirkpatrick published her article calling on America to become once again a normal country. That the call was sounded by a leading representative of the neoconservative movement, rather than someone from the Left, was quite promising. If a hardliner such as Kirkpatrick could see the light, perhaps other important leaders of the American polity would, too.

In the 1990s there were some indications that we were heading in the right direction. Under Bush the First and Clinton, defense spending decreased by about 30% from Cold War highs. Internally, signs of health began to emerge — for example, the decline in crime to early 1960s levels, and the return to a balanced federal budget (the latter, admittedly, achieved with some accounting legerdemain). A slow but steady healing process appeared to be underway.

In retrospect, one can see that these were mere surface phenomena. America’s role in the world did not undergo a fundamental reappraisal, as Kirkpatrick’s thesis demanded. The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap. Meddling elsewhere — in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo — reinforced this view, even though Somalia turned out badly (and of course Bosnia eventually became a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism, which is the state of affairs there today). In the 1990s pundits and average citizens alike began to speak openly of an American empire, while of course stressing its liberal and benign aspects. “We run the world” was the view espoused across a broad spectrum of public opinion, with dissent from this view confined to a few libertarians and traditional conservatives on the right, and some principled thinkers on the left.

At the same time, Deep State actors were attempting, both openly and covertly, to prevent any return to normalcy (if I may use that term), while promoting their agenda of American supremacy. Certain academics and intellectuals, lobbyists, defense contractors, and government officials with their eyes on the revolving door were all working assiduously to convince the Congress and the people that a return to something like a normal country in a normal time was a dangerous proposition. In fact, of course, there was no longer any need for America to maintain a huge military establishment and a worldwide network of bases — for there was no longer any existential threat. Russia was at that time virtually prostrate (nor did it ever have to become an enemy again), China as a danger was at least 25 years away, and Islamic terrorism was in its infancy — and could moreover have been sidestepped if the US had simply withdrawn from the Middle East, or at least evacuated Saudi Arabia and ended its one-sided support for Israel. But in the end these facts were either ignored or obscured by influential people with foreign policy axes to grind, assisted by others who had a financial stake in the maintenance of a global American empire.

The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap.

One group, The Project for the New American Century, stands out for its persistence and drive in seeking to advance a particularist agenda. It is no exaggeration to say that the members of this group — which included not only such faux intellectuals as Bill Kristol, but men with real power inside and outside of government, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — prepared the way for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. The blueprints for both the war and the Act were prepared by these men even before 9/11. September 11, 2001 was of course a turning point, just as 1947 had been. The neocons, the Deep State, had won. When the towers came down it meant that “full-spectrum dominance” had triumphed over “a normal country in a normal time.”

The Project for the New American Century closed its doors in 2006, but the neocons live on, and persist in calling for more defense spending, more interventionism, and more government restrictions on civil liberties. And they are joined by other voices. The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite. They, like the neocons, see Obama as far too passive a commander-in-chief, even as he wages war by proxy and drone in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and continues the state of national emergency first declared by George W. Bush on September 14, 2001. The state of emergency gives extraordinary wartime powers to the executive, even in the absence of a declared war. Some of the powers that the commander-in-chief possesses under the declaration are actually secret. Obama, who has the authority to end the state of emergency, has instead renewed it annually since taking office. The Congress, which is required by law to meet every six months to determine whether the state of emergency should be continued, has never considered the matter in formal session. (The Roman Republic, in case of a dire emergency, appointed a dictator whose power automatically expired after six months’ time. Only under the empire was a permanent autocracy instituted.)

At the same time, the systematic domestic surveillance authorized under the Patriot Act, far more extensive than anything J. Edgar Hoover or James Jesus Angleton (CIA Chief of Counterintelligence, 1954–1975) ever dreamed of, has been left virtually intact by the Obama administration and the Congress.

Obama’s successor, whether Republican or Democrat, is almost certain to be more interventionist abroad, and equally or more unfriendly to civil liberties at home (Trump seems mainly concerned with getting our allies to pay more for the protection we give them, as opposed to cutting back on our worldwide commitments, while his apparent views on civil liberties are not encouraging). America, it appears, is incapable of dialing back on imperial overstretch. Yet what vital American interest is served by meddling in places like Yemen or Ukraine? What ideals are fulfilled by supporting the suppression of democracy in, for example, Bahrain? It seems clear that American elites, both inside and outside government, simply cannot bring themselves to let the world be, cannot abandon the concept of a global order organized and run by the United States.

With distance comes perspective. As time passes it becomes ever clearer that George W. Bush’s war in Iraq represented a second American Syracuse, a defeat with catastrophic consequences. It is quite true that, as in Vietnam, our forces were not beaten in the field. But the greater truth is that the political objectives in Iraq, as in Vietnam, were not achievable, and that this could and should have been recognized from the start. Today most of Iraq is divided between a corrupt and incompetent Shia-led government under the influence of Iran, and an ISIS-dominated territory in which obscurantism and bloodthirsty brutality hold sway. Such are the fruits of the successful march on Baghdad in 2003. Trillions of American dollars — every penny of it borrowed — were thrown down the Iraqi rathole, as the Bush administration abandoned the principle of balanced budgets and the prospect of paying off the national debt, something that appeared eminently possible at the beginning of its term in office. The dead and the maimed, Americans and Iraqis, suffered to no purpose.

The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite.

Americans are a resilient people. America’s institutions, despite obvious flaws, are superior to those of its enemies and rivals. America recovered from the Syracuse of Vietnam and not only salved the wounds of that war but went on to defeat its main competitor in the arena of world politics. But can America recover from a second Syracuse?

Compare the state of the nation today with that of 1945, or even 1965. Admittedly, not everything has gone to rot. The advances achieved by women and minorities — racial and sexual — have given us a better, freer society, at least on the social plane, compared to 50 years ago. Advances in technology have in some respects brightened our lives. But the heavy hand of government and the machinations of the Deep State have brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, enmeshed us in foreign lands where we ought never to have trespassed, and put limits on basic freedoms of speech and privacy. Broad-based prosperity and the economic optimism of the past are gone, perhaps forever, because of adventurism abroad and elite mismanagement of the economy at home.

The current ruptures in the governing duopoly, Republican-Democrat, are clear evidence of dysfunction at the highest level, and of the citizens’ discontent. Yet the election of 2016 will be fought out between a bloviating, ignorant real estate tycoon and a tired, corrupt ex-First Lady. The former knows little of the Washington machine or the intricacies of the Deep State; I predict that, if elected, he will be reduced to a virtual puppet, and the fact will never dawn on him. Hillary, on the other hand, is very comfortable with the status quo, no matter what she may say to placate the supporters of her rival Bernie Sanders. Neither Trump nor Clinton — or anyone else with power, either — appears to have a clue about the real nature of the crisis we are in, much less how to bring us out of it.

A normal country in a normal time? Never again, I think. The future appears quite dark to me.

* * *

Author’s Note: Some readers of Liberty may be unfamiliar with the concept of the Deep State, or may reject it as mere conspiracy-mongering. In fact, the Deep State (or parts thereof) has been discussed in several well-researched books. A newcomer to the idea might begin by reading Philip Giraldi’s article, “Deep State America,”which appeared on the website of the American Conservative on July 30, 2015. Read it. I take issue with Giraldi in one respect: his total focus on the New York-Washington axis of power. The Sun Belt also plays a huge role in the Deep State. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1990 article, by the way, cannot be read free online, but is available through JSTOR.




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Will Libertarians Ever Sing Kumbaya?

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I keep hearing about the “libertarian moment.” And I do believe we’re inching toward one — although we’re not there yet. I’m hoping that when it does arrive, our moment will be beautiful to behold. But will it sound beautiful? So far, we’re making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

On Facebook, I belong to several libertarian groups — part of the lively cross-section of America that the social media serve. These are contentious times, and this election year has been a bloody mess. Sensible souls (most of whom probably stay away from Facebook) might imagine that within groups dedicated to one particular point of view, the discourse is relatively harmonious. That would be sensible, but as far as libertarian groups are concerned it certainly isn’t true.

A lot of the members of these online groups heartily hate each other. They’re at each other’s throats all the time. Of course we’re an independent bunch, and our individualism makes us obstreperous. But I must admit that I come away from some Facebook encounters — as well as any number of those that happen face-to-face — quite shaken. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

So far, libertarians are making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

More and more people are joining our ranks. Of course that’s a welcome development. But too many of them are permitting the sicknesses that swarm through statist politics to infect the liberty movement. Our new converts are bringing these contagions in with them.

Confusion abounds about what should be politicized and what shouldn’t. Those of us who’ve been around for a while know that matters that legitimately concern government should be politicized, while those that government should stay completely out of should not. Either this distinction isn’t being explained to inquirers, or they’re woefully slow to grasp it.

If something shouldn’t be politicized, then why are we squabbling about it? We ought to let all comers into our treehouse, as long as they uphold libertarian ideals. I stopped worrying about cooties many years ago. And I tend to resent my time being wasted by disputes over who belongs at which table in the cafeteria.

On one of the libertarian Facebook pages, a couple of days before I began this essay, someone posted a screed ridiculing belief in God. Why was that posted there? Are there no atheist groups? The unmistakable implication was that all libertarians are — or should be — atheists.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are.

I happen to be a libertarian primarily because I’m a Christian, and it’s the political philosophy I believe comes closest to the way Christ taught his followers to live. Now, if I believed that this meant the United States should be turned into a theocracy, I can see why other libertarians would have a problem with it. But then again, if I did believe such a thing, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are. Those invested in seeing themselves (or being seen) as strong and tough-minded, or as godly, patriotic, and upright, usually become Republicans. They love to strut and crow about their “conservatism.” And would-be sophisticates, itching to join the society of the intellectual, the revolutionary, or the cool, gravitate toward the Democratic Party and bloviate endlessly about “progressivism,” “compassion,” and “social justice.”

If these were simply their opinions about themselves, such fancies would be relatively harmless. There is nothing particularly wrong with being any of these things, or at least of trying to be. But they are opinions. They are not fully-fleshed identities. Nor are they necessarily convictions that grow out of confident self-knowledge.

Now this sort of middle-school preening is making its way into the liberty movement. We’re all supposed to care who’s too smart to believe in God, who’s more compassionate toward the downtrodden than everybody else, who thinks all women should be housewives and who thinks homosexuality is a sin. It’s like listening to 12-year-olds brag about being asked to the dance or making the basketball team. As long as these matters aren’t forced to become their problem, well-adjusted adults aren’t going to give a damn.

It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like.

I don’t believe that any law should force bakers to make my wedding cake. Some right-tilting libertarians are so disappointed when they hear this that they refuse to believe it. The switch is flipped on when they hear that I’m gay, and they’re so intent on proving whatever point they feel compelled to prove that there’s no way to turn it off again. It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like. The Republicans and the Democrats have decided that, as a popular Facebook meme puts it, they “don’t want to ‘adult’ today” — which might explain why both parties’ membership rolls are shrinking.

One of the things I love best about libertarians is that most of us enjoy being individuals. When we come together, I meet gay Christians, pro-life atheists, gun-toting pacifists, and recovering alcoholics who’d never touch weed but wholeheartedly support its legalization. Nobody consents to being crammed into a pigeonhole and conveniently labeled. Each of us can be gloriously ourselves. Why would we want it any other way?

By all means, let’s keep on coming together. Maybe, instead of a symphony orchestra, we’re more like a rowdy and exuberant jazz band. We each feel free to improvise; you strut our stuff and I strut mine. Yet on the all-important central theme we cangel. Together, we can make beautiful music. As long as we remember the song.




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Die Nasty

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Statist “progressives” are obsessed with wealth and power. I think that back in the ’80s, they must have been sucked into their TV sets, and they’ve been trapped ever since in an endless episode of Dynasty. This must be why they have no idea what the real world is like.

Oliver, a friend of mine who’s about to retire, will need to go on working — just to survive — until he dies. He can’t disclose to the government that he’ll still be earning money, or he’ll lose the Social Security he paid for with money he might otherwise have invested. Without it, he can’t make enough money, at any job that will still have him, while living on Social Security alone would reduce him to poverty. When I complain about this to people with standard-issue leftist views, all they do is rant about the greedy rich and the big corporations — as if Oliver didn’t exist.

On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas.

Another friend, Kevin, keeps bees and chickens at the home he shares with his life partner, on a spacious property in a semi-rural area. The city, or county, or whoever hands down such edicts, does not permit him to have enough bees or chickens to make a living selling honey and eggs. So he must return to an office cubicle — to spend the rest of his life working for big corporations and the rich.

How does any of this make sense? I mention my second friend to people who care so much about “the working class”. And I get blank stares and silence. Then they launch into yet another diatribe about “social justice.”

I’m beginning to think that they live on a different planet. A good name for it would be Die Nasty. And that’s definitely the way a whole lot of us are going to die, if “progressives” keep showing us their compassion.

The first requirement of honest politics, it seems to me, is that they apply to real people, here on earth. On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas. They ignore those of us who actually exist. Stereotypical, one-dimensional characters are all that interest them.

I’m much more concerned about actual human beings. Oliver would love to spend his golden years camping and fishing, and God knows he’s worked hard enough to earn it. Kevin’s farmette is within a stone’s throw of the zoo. He loves getting up to the crow of the rooster and the roar of the lions, and tending to the living things that flourish in his care. But although the American Dream looks different to each of us, for many it’s been preempted by a nightmare.

Were I to appeal to one of my own favorite fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes, he would quickly collar the culprit. “Tell me, my dear Lori,” I hear him muse, as he puffs on his pipe and plays the violin, “who really benefits from this mad scheme?”

I don’t need Doctor Watson to help me find the answer. It is elementary, indeed. The statist Left is the only sector of our society that gets anything out of the equation. “Splendid!” Holmes would declare. “And there is . . . do you not agree . . . a terrible beauty to it all.”

I suppose there is. Leftists keep making the very problems they purport to solve even worse than ever, thereby assuring that they themselves will keep being needed to save the day. Only day after day goes by, and no matter how many years pass, the problems remain. We keep getting more and more desperate for a solution, and far too many of us continue to call upon our “progressive” heroes to help.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it.

Both Oliver and Kevin are diehard progressives. They persist, against all evidence to the contrary, in thinking that their saviors will come through for them. Racial tensions soar into the stratosphere, the battle of the sexes goes thermonuclear, and gay activists snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by attacking religious freedom just as same-sex marriage is gaining ground. Still, the faithful keep faith. If I were to tell my friends that government is making their lives miserable, they would quickly protest that — oh, no! — government is noble, and has We the People’s best interests at heart.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it. I have stopped, because I no longer believe in statism at all. I, too, will have to work for the rest of my life, because Obama and Company have robbed me of the chance that I might ever retire. I still believe in progress, but I refuse to accept the silly mummery that claims to promote it as any substitute for the real thing.

Real people need real solutions. It would help if more of us got a clue. Where is Sherlock Holmes when we need him?




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Damsel in Distress

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Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Syndrome

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Merely a few years back sophisticated investors in the Western world were obsessed with ABCP, which was designed on the premise that if you put a lot of risky investments together, whirl them together nicely — removing the need to see the actual ingredients — make them tradable and hence liquid, somehow the basic risk that was right at the core of the ABCP would disappear. Alas, as can be expected, ABCP actually worsened the risk-reward situation, for now broker commissions had to be paid and the lack of risk perception encouraged an increase in the size of the higher-risk ingredients of ABCP.

How did ABCP come to be acceptable by the very best in Western society? It was a result of an irrationality that has been creeping into the society, a result of the subservience of the individual and his thinking to the institutional order, and more importantly of a corruption of the feedback mechanism by the politicization and collectivization of every aspect of life.

By suffering or benefiting from the consequences of our actions, we are enabled to align actions and beliefs to what is best for our prosperity. This we often no longer do. Institutions have interfered to privatize profits and socialize costs. This is socialism. It is also the mysticism that constitutes the very essence of backward, poor societies. For all intents and purposes, mysticism is synonymous with socialism.

In the West, there has been a significant break from individual self-responsibility. It is no longer necessary to do productive work or look after for your health or have a husband to have babies or save for your old age. The nanny state promises to look after you. This has broken the feedback system. The result is that our thinking is no longer aligned to what is best for us, what is rational and what makes for a productive society.

In the West, people increasingly believe that something can be created from nothing, the magic that either the state or God will provide for you if you pray. Rhetoric and sound-bites, accepted as universal truths, allow people to avoid delving deeper. It is now believed possible that the inherent risks of life can be eliminated through top-down management by experts. You have the same vote in political space whether you understand the issues or not, and this means mediocrity in the intellectual space. No value is found in deep exploration of a subject. Meanwhile, mysticism produces a significantly reduced sense of causality. The passion to advance one’s life and explore its possibilities has little value in a mystical culture.

In the West, people increasingly believe that something can be created from nothing, the magic that either the state or God will provide for you if you pray.

The product is an increasingly superstitious society and confused, cloudy thinking. Increased crime and loss of prosperity are the obvious consequence, because self-responsibility has taken a back seat. Dependence on thinking driven by the media and whatever is in fashion makes superstitious beliefs spread very quickly. Not many question how the printing of currency can create prosperity. Who needs to work when wealth can be created by the magic wand? Why look after your health when ultra-high-tech medical technology can take care of all ailments, perhaps making a lot of people subliminally believe that mortality can be avoided. Not many question that the world can be changed by the heavy hand of the US military. Everyone seems to have an answer for how to get rid of poverty and crime.

ABCP thinking makes people in the West worry about such things as the possibility that a certain drug might kill one in a million users. This endless worry about the smallest harm that may come from anything creates terrible regulatory problems and cost increases. Delays in drug approval kill far more people than they were supposed to save.

When 9/11 happened, a lot of Americans shouted, “How could this happen here? This is America.” Alas, there is nothing about America that makes it immune to attacks. It was not just the deaths of 3,000 people that affected Americans but their nationalistic arrogance. The steps Americans took to deal with 9/11 damaged liberty and security instead of strengthening them. Now the equivalent of thousands of lives is wasted in lineups at American airports.

As heartless as it may sound, 20 children being killed by a gunman is not a world-changing event. Many more people are killed on the roads each day in the United States. Many more are murdered in other ways. Just because a certain crime is covered by major news channels does not meant that people have to do something in a kneejerk fashion. That is superstition. Of course, one might want to explore the various reasons behind violent crimes, but putting restrictions on society without a cost-benefit analysis only leaves people with a false sense of security.

Gun control, putting metal detectors in every school, making people to go through porno-scanners at airports, is a wrong reflex. People must get some perspective on life. They also need to develop, or redevelop, a sense of responsibility for themselves. Then, after a bit of thought they may realize that shooting massacres have a way of happening in areas where guns cannot be taken in by decent people. In the end, they may accept the fact that even after all proper actions are taken, bad things will happen. This is the nature of life.

Western society must find a way back to rationality and restore a social structure shaped so that a person faces the consequences of his actions. This will be the antidote to mysticism and will likely put the West back on the path to progress.




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